Carmen Herrera, Who Sold Her First Painting at 89
One-hundred-and-one years old is an unlikely age for any debut, let alone the solo debut of an art star at a major New York City gallery. But Cuban-born Carmen Herrera has always done things her own way. Despite the fact that she's been a practicing artist in New York for more than half a century, she's only been recognized in a big, international, art-world way during the last decade.
On May 3, Herrera opened the inaugural show at London-based Lisson Gallery's brand-new space under the High Line. As if that wasn't enough, she's also having a solo show of early work this fall at the Whitney – not bad for a painter whose work was virtually unknown for more than half a century. Herrera, who turned 101 on May 31, still works every day, despite being wheelchair-bound. In fact, the 13 vibrant paintings on display at the Lisson Gallery were all produced between 2012 and now.
Born in 1915 in Havana to an affluent family — her father was founder of the newspaper El Mundo, and her mother was one of Cuba's first feminist journalists — Herrera originally studied architecture, quitting that path in the late 1930s when she married Jesse Loewenthal, a school teacher.
The couple moved to New York, and Herrera studied at the Art Students League. In 1948, they relocated to Paris, where she joined a group of abstract artists who showed at the Salon. In the mid-1950s the two were back in New York for good, and Herrera's work became sharper and more minimal. Despite knowing such art stars as Willem de Kooning and gallerist and collector Peggy Guggenheim, and being close friends with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, she was instantly plunged into oblivion. The gallerist Rose Fried dashed Herrera's hopes when she visited her studio and then announced, 'You can paint circles around my men artists, but I'm not going to show you because you are a woman.”
'I walked out of there and felt like I had been slapped in the face, ” Herrera recalled.
Until her husband died in 2000 at the age of 98, he was her staunchest supporter. 'Actually, it was wonderful, ” she said. 'Nobody bothered me. I was doing what I had to do. Fortunately, my husband liked what I did, and he was by me all the time.”
As a female Hispanic artist more interested in making than marketing her work, Herrera's talent was a well-kept secret until 1998, when she had a show at the Museo Del Barrio. After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork at 89. Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern.
What keeps her going? Herrera puts it simply: 'It's a passion. Every morning, I get up, I have breakfast, I go to the table and I begin drawing.”
Based on The New York Magazine, ARTnews, and The New York Times.
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